Meet the Volunteers: Jan Boyes, ESRO cataloguing volunteer

3 June 2017

‘You often find with volunteering that one thing leads to another…’

‘It’s wonderful to have an archive, but not so wonderful if people can’t find anything in it! I hope that’s where I come in.

‘I’ve always been interested in history and all the “old stuff” that goes with it, so became a Friend of the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) several years ago. This was when the Office was based at The Maltings in Lewes. Volunteers were needed to create a computerised index for the thousands of wills which were kept in the archive. At the time, anyone wanting to find a will had to hunt through the indexes in large dusty books before they could find and order the one they wanted.

‘Going along to The Maltings on Tuesday evenings and inputting the information from the indexes onto an Excel spreadsheet became a regular routine and something I enjoyed very much. There were usually four or five of us, some working on different projects, and we became quite a tightly-knit group. It seemed natural to continue as a volunteer once ESRO moved to The Keep and since then I’ve had a variety of work, all of it interesting.

‘At one time I was cataloguing a collection of records of Piddinghoe, the tiny East Sussex village which lies on the river Adur between Newhaven and Lewes. That was quite sad as it had been the lifetime’s collection of a fellow ESRO volunteer and personal friend Valerie Mellor, who had died suddenly. She left the archive to ESRO and two archivists travelled to her home to pick it up; there were documents, postcards and images plotting the history of the whole village. It’s a really wonderful resource, and now available to visitors to The Keep.

‘More recently I’ve been using spreadsheets again, this time archiving the records of Humberts, an estate agent in Lewes. This is a twentieth-century collection of thousands of local sales particulars and correspondence relating to property purchases. I’m putting the basic information onto an online spreadsheet so an individual can search by date or by property name or address. It’s a straightforward process but still quite absorbing.

‘I quite often come to The Keep on a Monday, when it’s closed to the public. This is the only time when the map table in the Reading Room has nothing on it, so it’s the ideal opportunity for myself and senior archivist Anna Manthorpe to unroll and examine some extremely large maps recently received from Hastings Museum. Anna inputs a description onto the spreadsheet while I read out the references, re-roll and tag. It’s not quite as exciting as you might think. The maps are mid-twentieth century and show proposed locations for public amenities – gentlemen’s toilets for example – but they are important to keep as they show council landholdings as well as sites of water, gas and sewage pipes. Once it has been listed, each map is given a tag and number, re-rolled and stored in the repository in a bespoke linen map bag.

‘You often find with volunteering that one thing leads to another and you get the thrill of discovery. Working on the East Sussex wills was particularly good for this. I came across a man called Fox whom the will register described as a “comedian”. I thought that was quite unusual for 1790 so I investigated further and found that Fox and his wife and children were actors, and had run pubs and theatres in Brighton and London. His daughter Elizabeth was the mistress, first, of the Earl of Egremont, by whom she had four children, and then the Prince Regent, by whom she had one. She sounds like a remarkable person and I hope to find out more about her.

‘The main purpose of all this volunteering, as far as I see it, has been to make the archives not only available, but easy to search – and find. It’s a weekly commitment that brings many rewards and constantly changing interest. The archivists themselves appreciate you, too!’

Jan’s article on the Fox family can be found on the Friends of The Keep Archives website, in the Spring 2012 edition of FESRO News.





Plan of the River Rother and Rye Harbour comes to The Keep

23 March 2017

By Lindsey Tydeman

In January 1839, the Rye Harbour Commissioners requested the prestigious canal engineer William Cubitt to organise a preliminary survey of the River and Rye Harbour. It was an information-gathering exercise, intending to enable the Commissioners to make decisions about improving drainage and river navigation. Cubitt worked with land surveyors James Corry Sherrard and Sydney Hall, whose partnership was at 2 Great George Street, Westminster, London.

The result was on a monumental scale: A map consisting of 20 sheets of paper, mounted on linen and rolled, measuring about 6 metres by 1½ and drawn to a scale of 100 feet : 1 inch. It represents the extensive area from the town of Rye southwards to the outlet of the river Rother at Rye Harbour, showing elements of drainage and the town of Rye in considerable detail. Also depicted are the Preventive Stations (bases for the Riding Officers whose job it was to prevent smuggling) at Rye and Camber, the Royal William public house, lighthouses, flagstaffs, Camber Chapel and the sites of kettle nets.

The map (AMS 7199) rolled out on the floor of the conservation studio

The map (AMS 7199) rolled out on the floor of the conservation studio

The map was bought last year at auction from Bonhams with funds from the Friends of The Keep Archive and the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund. It arrived in its original metal canister, which had rusted and become a ‘very bad’ environment for the document, according to Keep Conservator Melissa Williams. It was decided nevertheless to retain the case as part of the archive although the map will be stored in a custom-made calico bag.

The map was unrolled in The Keep’s reading room and found to be in surprisingly good condition. ‘The majority of the damage had come from frequent rolling and unrolling,’ says Melissa Williams. ‘The first panel was very worn and the edges were badly torn from where it had been stored upright in its case. Some sections had been repaired, probably in the 1980s, and now those repairs themselves were causing problems; for instance, additional pieces of white linen, too heavy for the original cloth, had been glued on to the back.’

The main issue from a conservation point of view was the dirt. In fact, the cleaning of the map has become a communal project, with everyone in conservation doing their stint over a six-month period. ‘But it wasn’t a straightforward case of simply cleaning it,’ says Melissa. ‘There had been lots of additional markings to the map in pencil and we knew we had to retain those. So we began by mechanically cleaning the front and back, avoiding all the annotated areas.’

The map is quite robust, being made of attached sections of paper on linen. Typically, conservators clean a defined front section, using Mars Staedtler erasers and a soft brush, before rolling it back and cleaning the other side; this prevents remaining dirt on the back transferring to the front sections as the map is rolled up. Melissa Williams comments; ‘When that is finished we will start from the other end, this time cleaning section by section, repairing as we go and moving on to specialised cleaning of the pencil marks. This will involve great lightness of touch!’ Tears in the fabric are repaired by infilling with non-starched aero linen fixed with a methyl cellulose adhesive made on site.

Conservation assistants Kim Mercado (left) and Fiona Bailey, working on the map

Conservation assistants Kim Mercado (left) and Fiona Bailey, working on the map

‘The sheer size of this map has been a challenge,’ says Melissa Williams, ‘but once we started to clean it the quality of the colouring was astounding. It is beautiful and each colour is extremely well preserved, even the yellow which is usually the first to fade. No information has been lost.’

County Archivist Christopher Whittick says that it would have been unthinkable for East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) not to have attempted to purchase this highly informative work. ‘Maps convey a large amount of information in a very small space; they capture the appearance of a locality at a moment in time; they convey information of value to the local historian, biographer, historic buildings specialist and student of place-names. Of all the types of document in a local record office they are among the most readily accessible to an inexperienced user.

‘Our sources at The Keep archive allow the story of Rye harbour and the lower Rother to be told, but they lacked the crucial piece of the jigsaw – this map.’

The map is currently in conservation but will be catalogued and made available to public access in the near future.

The archive of the Rye Harbour Commissioners 1724-1932 is held at The Keep (ESRO KRA, NRA 9), as is that of Rye Corporation (RYE) and the Commissioners of the Rother and Brede Levels (DAP), which includes copies of Cubitt’s reports.



Ordnance Survey maps at The Keep

6 December 2016

By Philip Bye

For local and social historians, maps are among the most popular resources at The Keep. Our archive includes beautiful estate and tithe maps, and a substantial collection of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps dating from 1870 to 1990. The East Sussex Record Office has just finished listing 7,961 OS maps; the list can be viewed on our online catalogue and the maps themselves are on open access in the Reading Room (although you’ll need to register as a user of The Keep to access this room).

This collection of maps (which includes 1,391 maps formerly stored at Brighton History Centre) was received chiefly from the Planning Department of East Sussex County Council, although nearly a thousand were recently sent to us from Hastings Library.

As shown in the examples below, the maps are at a variety of scales; these range from fairly small (2½-inches to the mile) to very large for urban areas (50-inches to the mile). They show a wealth of local detail, which will enable searchers to investigate their history of houses, locality and changes to the countryside.

Digital images of 6, 25 and 50-inch OS maps for the whole of the UK from 1842 to 1952 are available online from the National Library of Scotland ( On that website, you’ll find map-based finding aids to help you find the relevant sheet numbers for the area in which you’re are interested.




Meet the Volunteers: Elaine MacGregor, conservation volunteer

3 June 2016

‘I love the camaraderie you get in a volunteer group’

‘When I started volunteering at The Keep about 18 months ago, I chose to work in conservation – we’ve got lots of old family photograph albums and documents at home and I wanted to learn how to restore and conserve them. The first job I was given was cleaning maps, and I was surprised – and thrilled! – to be handling some which were nearly three hundred years old.

Elaine in the conservation studio‘Today I’m cleaning glass-plate negatives of postcards; I put blue nitrile gloves on first, then use a really soft bristle brush on both sides, followed by cotton wool and water on the shiny side only. You’d be amazed at how much dirt comes off. Then they’re repacked in the original boxes with unbleached buffered tissue between each one. The negatives are a recent purchase from the Brighton-based business Wardell’s Postcards which was started by Bill Wardell in the early twentieth century – there are over 6,000 of them – and we’re also trying to sort them into areas as we go along.

‘I love the camaraderie you get when working in a volunteer group. You talk as you work and there’s not a subject we haven’t covered – sex, politics, books – you name it, we have discussed it! I’m one of the oldest volunteers at 71 but, old or young, it really doesn’t matter. We’ve been round to each other’s for dinner and have stayed in touch after people have left. And although having an interest in history is useful, it’s not absolutely necessary because conservation work is a goal in itself and we’re all working towards it.

‘One thing that has sunk in during my time here is the importance of preserving documents correctly if we want them to last. I was in India last year researching some ancestors who had lived and worked in Trichinopoly, Southern India. We visited the local Anglican church and I was handed a plastic bag containing the church register from 1810-1834 – the book was virtually in pieces and riddled with silverfish. How I wished I could have brought it back here and repaired it! But I did manage to photograph every page – over 1,000 in all – so at least there’s a record. I’ve also transcribed about 3,000 baptisms and burials from this book and have uploaded them with the photos on to various family history websites.

‘Volunteering is a fascinating way of finding out how an archive works from the inside. I have Thursdays marked on my calendar through the year now – I can’t imagine not coming to The Keep!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman

Digital Developments: Improvements to our Online Catalogue

28 July 2015

By Laurence Smith

Searching the online catalogue of an archive isn’t as straightforward as one might imagine. It differs from standard search-engine protocol in many ways, making it a mesh of hierarchical confusion for those who are unfamiliar with it. Here at The Keep, we have been working hard behind the scenes to simplify the process, posting blogs on our website to help people understand the way the search works, and also creating detailed Help Pages to provide support. Three months ago, with funding from The Friends of The Keep Archives, I was hired as the ‘Discoverability Officer’ to help make the search function simpler and more accurate. During this time, with a great deal of help and work from the good people at Orangeleaf Systems Ltd (developer for The Keep’s website), it has improved considerably.

First, let’s look at the changes Orangeleaf has just made to the Advanced Search option. A crucial element in any historical record is the date so, a few months ago, they did some fancy programming at their end to enable people to search within a date range. I helped out with testing this and it worked perfectly. The only problem was that it required every single record to be re-uploaded to the website in order for the changes to take effect. That took around two months for me to complete, but the end result was well worth it! The next big step was the design of Advanced Search version 2, which went live on Monday 13 July 2015. This added many new features, allowing greater ease of use as well as improved results on each search carried out.

The new search differs from the old one not just in its slick, jazzed-up interface but also in its inner workings. Orangeleaf worked closely with Keep staff to make sure that the new functions met the needs of the archivists, as well as the needs of the public. On the original Advanced Search, if you were to use the enhanced search fields (Title, Place, Subject, for example), the only hits generated would be of those records that have been specifically ‘indexed’ in our databases, which isn’t many. As a result, using these fields would often achieve very little. With the updated version, if you were to type ‘Hellingly’ into the Place field, for example, the list of results would include all records containing the word Hellingly. It would also boost those that have been indexed to the top of the search list. This means that you will generate a greater number of hits, with the most relevant being right in front of your eyes from the start. Also new is a standard ‘Keywords’ search, which includes the option to search ‘all words’, ‘any of the words’, ‘exact phrase’ and ‘proximity’. There are many more adjustments to the advanced search that Orangeleaf has made, but I won’t ruin the fun for you of discovering them all yourself!

Map of Ashburnham, ACC2300/1/8, dated 1638

Map of Ashburnham, ACC2300/1/8, dated 1638

Since I started here, I have been working mainly with records in East Sussex Record Office’s internal database, CALM, to make them easier for the public to discover once uploaded to The Keep’s online catalogue. I am currently updating the old parish names in our records, replacing them with the modern-day versions. This means, for example, that a record for ‘30 acres called Twissels and Brigdens Wish in Wartling and Essebornhame’ appears on our catalogue as ‘30 acres called Twissels and Brigdens Wish in Wartling and Ashburnham’, because Essebornhame is actually an old form of the name for Ashburnham. I have also been ironing out discrepancies in some of the records, ensuring fractions are properly displayed, for example, and abbreviations are written out in full. These small changes will make it easier for the public to find and interpret the records they need. The University of Sussex team has been making similar changes to their records for some time now also.

Despite all that we’ve achieved over the past few months, the process of optimising the search engine can seem never-ending. With well over one million records to check, edit, tag, export and re-upload, it will be a long time until all our goals are met. In the meantime, though, we are benefiting from the steps we have taken so far, and hope that we have enabled you to discover more easily all the wonders that The Keep and its collections have offer.


The Keep News: Bevendean Fun Day and Book Launch

1st August 2014

The sun was out and Bevendean Primary School was buzzing on Saturday, with a bouncy castle, slides, a barbeque, and displays focusing on Bevendean’s past. Visitors to this year’s Family Fun Day were given the chance to step back in time, as Bevendean History Group joined forces with Glad Rags, to host a stall with historic costumes for people to dress up in.

Bevendean History Group has had a busy year. Action for Bevendean Community received £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for an exciting project, ‘The History of Lower Bevendean Farm’. Led by volunteers from the Bevendean History Group, the project concentrated on engaging the local community in discovering the history of the land on which the modern housing estate and school now stands (see the Bevendean History Project website for further details).

The results of this research have recently been published in a detailed book – The History of Bevendean Farm – which follows the history of the farm from 1086 to 1959, when it was demolished. Maps, photographs and other original material from East Sussex Record Office’s archives and Royal Pavilion & Museums collections, which are held at The Keep, have been used to illustrate this fascinating story. A copy of the book is now available to consult in our Reference room.

The book can also be ordered for from the Bevendean History Project website. The group are asking for a nominal donation of £3, to maintain their website. For further details, fill out their contact form.